Prime Minister Ehud Olmert committed to lowering the annual death toll in road accidents from over 400 in 2006 to 360 by 2010, and then to 300 by 2015, in a speech he gave Wednesday night to the fifth annual Or Yarok conference held in Tel Aviv.
"You challenged me, and I did it," Olmert told Or Yarok founder and chairman Avi Naor, who had called on him to establish a specific numerical goal for traffic safety during his opening speech.
"The life-saving system on the roads is receiving [a level of backing] it has not enjoyed before this," Naor said in his opening statements of Olmert's support.
"The budget promised [by the prime minister] of NIS 400 million for 2007 and NIS 550m. for 2008 and thereafter will allow the development of long-term policy," Naor said, adding that "there is no doubt that Israeli society has taken a meaningful step forward in recognizing that it is the government's responsibility to provide safety for its citizens."
"The dead are not just numbers for us," Naor concluded. "Each one has a name. Each is an entire world that has been cut off, a bleeding wound. A state that cares about the lives of its citizens cannot shirk its responsibility."
The newly-established National Traffic Safety Authority, created by law on July 12 and scheduled to begin work on January 1, 2007, was the center of discussion at the conference. The authority is meant to be an independent agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Transportation and Road Safety, which will act as a forum for integrating the various government agencies that deal with traffic safety. Its primary purpose will be to develop and oversee the implementation of a national traffic safety strategy.
MK Gilad Erdan (Likud), who was chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee for the War on Traffic Accidents in the last Knesset and serves as the current head of the Knesset's traffic safety lobby, was the driving force behind the National Traffic Safety Authority Law.
"I don't remember a prime minister that agreed to publicly set long-term goals and a budget for this issue," Erdan told conference attendees. "If he follows through on these policies, even I won't be able to criticize him," Erdan concluded.
While the authority was established following the recommendations of the Sheinin Committee report from 2003, it does not include many of the provisions recommended in the report.
The authority was a "pale shadow of the recommendations of the Sheinin Committee," according to Yoel Perlman, who served as a member on the committee. It failed to include many elements of the report that were critical to traffic safety and enforcement, while in other areas its powers were limited to advisory roles, Perlman wrote in a pamphlet given out to conference participants.
Or Yarok CEO Hezi Meshita told The Jerusalem Post that the new authority represented "a revolution and a positive change of direction." According to Meshita, it represented a three-fold increase in the budget dedicated to combating traffic collisions, and was accompanied by the support of Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, "who sees this as a central part of his duties."
The most encouraging aspect of the new plan, Meshita added, was that the authority's "distributing of funds [for traffic safety measures] would no longer be automatic, but would be dependent on results."
The conference's keynote speaker was the renowned traffic safety expert Prof. Ian Johnston of Australia's Monash University. In his speech to the conference, Johnston noted the importance of integrating unconnected government agencies in the framework of a national strategy for fighting road safety.
"Road transport is an essential service," he said, "just like water or power." As such, "we'd never allow a dangerous element into the power system, would we?" Unfortunately, he noted, this is not how many governments understand the challenge of road safety.
"The goal is to put five-star people in five-star cars driving on five-star roads," he explained, and that meant involving such disparate authorities as the police, the public insurer, the ministries of Justice, Infrastructures and Education. "We need systems thinking," he said, which would include "where we put power lines, how broad roads must be, public awareness campaigns," and many other such functions.
The most important aspect of a national strategic plan, he concluded, was that it be supported by consistent political will from the highest levels of government.
"Politicians don't need to know how to do it," he said, "but they need to tell the chief executives of their agencies what must be done."